COLUMBIA — Back at home in Rock Hill, Josenna Clowney has already watched the play several times on her DVR — and marveled at it.
There was her son, Jadeveon, lining up and leaning forward, his fingertips pressed into the grass at Williams-Brice Stadium on Saturday night. South Carolina led Georgia 21-0 with 4:21 left in the first half. The Bulldogs, desperate for a touchdown, went for it on fourth down and goal at the 2-yard line. Across from Clowney was Georgia’s left tackle, Kenarious Gates.
The ball was snapped. Clowney burst out of his stance and took three quick steps, moving initially to his right — the outside edge of the play. Gates tried to cut-block him by rolling into his legs. Instead of going around Gates, Clowney leaped over him, just as Gates was about to hit his knees. Gates wasn’t even completely on the ground yet, just bent over.
With seamless high hurdler form — lead with the right leg, drag the left, keep running — Clowney sprinted straight at quarterback Aaron Murray. He had to rush a pass to Rantavious Wooten, who was stopped where he caught it, at the 1-yard line. As Gates pulled himself off the grass, he turned around, looked into the backfield and perhaps wondered what in the world just happened.
Clowney’s mother couldn’t quite believe it, either.
“You were high,” she told her son after watching the replay.
“All right, Ma, that’s enough of that,” Clowney replied.
USC’s 35-7 win over Georgia was a national showcase game for Clowney, a sophomore defensive end. It was the midpoint of an undefeated regular season whose magic will grow if No. 3 USC beats No. 9 LSU this weekend in Baton Rouge. It was also essentially the midpoint of Clowney’s career, as many observers believe he will be the first pick in the 2014 NFL draft. He is doing his best to deflect praise, even from his mom, as he quickly becomes one of college football’s best players — so impressive against Georgia that he is being mentioned as a potential candidate for the Heisman Trophy, which just one primarily defensive player has ever won.
“I’ve just been laughing about it,” Clowney said of the Heisman talk.
He is chasing bigger goals this season for USC, and in the future for himself. Of course, success is not new to him. He was the nation’s top-ranked recruit. As a true freshman last season, he had eight sacks and five forced fumbles, despite not starting and knowing so little of the defensive scheme that teammates had to tell him where to go before plays.
His two tackles for loss and a sack against Georgia — by no means a complete measure of his impact on the game — increased his season totals to 11½ tackles for loss and 6½ sacks, and his career totals to 23½ and 14½. He should at least approach USC’s season and career records in both categories — 19½ and 54½ tackles for loss, 10 and 29 sacks.
He is better this season because he is smarter, combining a sharper sense for the game with the athleticism and instincts he long enjoyed — the traits that he demonstrated while hurdling Gates, which he said he has done to other opponents.
Earlier in the game, Clowney was also wise enough to notice Murray tapping his center’s hip whenever he wanted the snap, because of crowd noise. Clowney acknowledged that, last season, his mind wouldn’t have been clear enough to recognize that tendency.
“I think I’d be too wrapped in trying to figure out what I need to do on that play,” he said.
Now, he knows USC’s entire defensive plan. On certain plays, the ends must watch the offensive tackle as the ball is snapped, to “read” the tackle’s movements. On others, the ends must watch the snap of the ball, before bursting out of their stance.
“Last year, I used to look at the ball every play,” Clowney said.
He also wised up by using his hands more this season to create separation, because plowing into tackles with your shoulder doesn’t work as well as it did in high school, against weaker players.
Defensive line coach Brad Lawing said Clowney no longer needs direction from teammates before the snap. But Lawing has not stopped pushing Clowney.
“You could be a first-round pick, or you could be the first pick,” Lawing said he tells Clowney “all the time.”
Impressing NFL crowds will have to wait. For now, Clowney will settle for wowing his mom, his coaches and, with those special plays worth rewinding, even himself.
“I didn’t even know I jumped over him clean like that,” he said. “It was just something that just happened.”